Madeleine Davies

Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

The Lady in the Van: review

In Uncategorized on November 17, 2015 at 10:40 pm

There is a scene in The Lady in the Van when two evangelists turn up on Alan Bennett’s doorstep and ask “Does Jesus Christ dwell in this house?” He gives them short shrift (“No. Try the van.”). But by this point it is abundantly clear that, when it comes to putting into practice the Gospel imperative, it is the doleful playwright at number 23 Gloucester Crescent who best rises to the challenge.

During the 15 years that Miss Shepherd stays in her van outside his house (and eventually in his drive)  he refuses to define their relationship. A social worker who describes him as her carer is furiously taken to task.

“I am not the carer. I hate caring. I hate the thought. I hate the word. I do not care and I do not care for. I am here; she is there. There is no caring.”

He will not accept responsibility for this cantankerous old woman, or accept congratulations for his apparent solicitude. It is not out of altruism that he has let her stay, he explains, but timidity and laziness.

One cynical neighbour is inclined to agree (“Kind? This London! No-one’s kind”).

Nevertheless, Bennett finds himself meeting the demands of his irascible neighbour, making her coffee, chasing off her tormenters, liaising with social services, and exerting himself behind her van, and eventually, her wheelchair.

Miss Shepherd is repeatedly described in the film as “a difficult woman”. She is rude, short-tempered and selfish. She never says thank you. Children in the street are scared of her. We probably all grew up knowing someone like her: an old woman pushing her life around in bags, possibly smelling bad, the subject of jokes and rumours. Probably she had a nickname crueller than that of the film’s title. Bennett makes it clear that those in need of our help are not always grateful, or even likeable. The business of looking after them is not romantic or, at least immediately, rewarding.

“Caring is about shit” he concludes, after clearing up the literal stuff Miss Shepherd has left in his drive.

“One seldom was able to do her a good turn without some thoughts of strangulation,” he quips.

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Should Bishops look to their own houses?

In Uncategorized on October 19, 2015 at 10:27 pm

I suspect that Church of England’s Bishops are used to their pronouncements being dismissed, ignored, or translated into headlines suggesting that they are on the brink of raiding the Lambeth Palace armoury (it must have one?) and declaring all-out war with Number 10. But I was a bit taken aback by the extent of the hostility to their latest suggestion. In a private letter to the Prime Minister sent last September, 84 bishops recommended that the UK increase the number of refugees it takes over the next five years from 20,000 to 50,000. When it failed to precipitate a “substantive reply” they went public.

The day the Observer splashed the letter on its front page, the Church’s Parliamentary Adviser, Richard Chapman expressed the hope that the Prime Minister was correct in his assertion that Britain and Twitter are “not the same thing”. I think his hope is well-founded. But I also think it is still worth subjecting some of the criticism to scrutiny.

Much of it focused on the fact that Bishops live in big houses and are, apparently, unwilling to open them up to some of the 50,000 they want to welcome to our shores. In fact, both the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Chelmsford have done just that. “We can’t ask people to do something we’re not offering to do ourselves,” the latter told Premier.

But the reality is that councils don’t want spare rooms. Well-meaning offers of help have been gently rebuffed.

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A Syrian Love Story: review

In Uncategorized on September 20, 2015 at 7:48 pm


In a Q&A after the screening of A Syrian Love Story in Crouch End, the host proposed to director Sean McAllister that it was “not exactly Mills and Boon”.

She’s right; but the film, five years in the making, is unmistakeably a love story. Jealousy, nostalgia, and passion are all shown in unsparing close-up – the camera is generally inches from the subjects’ faces – in this account of a marriage in crisis, for which the tragic failure of the Syrian uprising is the extraordinary backdrop.

McAllister met Amer Daoud, a Palestinian freedom fighter, in Damascus in 2008. Unlike those journalists who responded to the Syrian government’s overtures by printing puff pieces, he asked awkward questions about the detention of political prisoners. Daoud suggested he tell the story of his wife, Raghda Hasan, an Alawite (like President Bashar al Assad) but also a dissident. She was in prison, at the time, and Daoud was raising their children, including three-year-old Bob, alone.

Bob.3. talks to his mother, in prison

Bob, 3, talks to his mother, in prison

Over the course of the subsequent years, McAllister filmed the family on a small camera purchased from a shop in Damascus, capturing Hasan’s release in 2011 during an amnesty prompted by the Syrian uprising, through to their exile to Lebanon, and, eventually, safety in Paris. He has also preserved evidence of a marriage under huge strain: a wife told she cannot be “both Che Guevara and a mother” and a father struggling to reconnect with the woman he fell in love with through a hole in a prison wall who has emerged, drawn, from a dungeon. The footage is intimate, occasionally uncomfortably so, filmed in the sparse apartments through which the family move in search of refuge. It’s a complete contrast to documentaries that seek to explain the Middle East through news archive footage and talking heads pontificating in the studio.

It’s extremely illuminating.

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Give Me Sex Jesus: thoughts from the UK

In Uncategorized on September 19, 2015 at 1:06 pm

As titles go, Give Me Sex Jesus, is pretty tasty clickbait.

The trailer promises “the naked truth…behind life’s touchiest subject” and cuts together shots of a couple devouring an apple together (FALL IMAGERY!), American preachers propounding “biblical norms” and talking heads revealing some very personal truths (“I don’t want to be 35 and a virgin; “I learned to masturbate in the forests of Ohio”).

I watched it on Friday, and really enjoyed it.

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Why are clergy wasting their time on social media?

In Uncategorized on August 29, 2015 at 6:35 pm

Twitter is something of a success story for our clergy. They are among the medium’s most popular characters, with hoards of followers, many of whom never interact with their ilk IRL.

But their presence has not come without a backlash. Accusations of narcissism and time-wasting have been levelled at the men and women who, some would argue, should be too busy visiting the poor and ministering to the sick, to be crafting 140-character epigrams.

“Why are they wasting their time on social media?” was the first question posed to three prominent clergy tweeters at Greenbelt on Saturday.

Kate Bottley, the “Googlebox vicar “(54.9k followers), Richard Coles (87.5k followers) and Giles Fraser (28k followers) did a good job of defending their commitment to the medium but, reassuringly I felt, acknowledged its dangers, and readily admitted to getting it wrong on occasion. Read the rest of this entry »

Of Men and Monsters – how do we report sexual assault?

In Uncategorized on August 1, 2015 at 4:14 pm

SEVEN years ago Winnie M Li was brutally raped by a stranger while hiking in Belfast. Within a few hours, she had the “surreal” experience of hearing herself referred to as a “wee Chinese girl whose life is now ruined” on a local radio talkshow.

Four years after her attacker was jailed, she received a phone call from a journalist informing her that he had breached his probation and was missing. The journalist wanted to know how she felt. “Sex Beast on the Loose” is the most lurid headline she can remember. She couldn’t look at the page that placed their photographs alongside one another.

“I was very coWinnie-at-Paradise-Yardnscious of the fact that they were trying to get an extreme statement from me,” she told the Clear Lines festival on Friday night. “I was asked ‘Is he a monster?’. I do not know this person. I am not going to call someone a monster, because everyone is a human being.”

An American film producer and writer, “fascinated but also repelled” by the telling, by others, of her story, Li has since written a novel – Dark Chapter – based on her experience, and is about to start a PhD at the London School of Economics, researching the impact of digital media on the public discourse about rape. Clear Lines, which she co-founded with Dr Nina Burrowes, a psychologist specialising in the study of sexual abuse, is a way to help other survivors tell their stories in more complex ways that the mainstream media might allow.

The four-day festival includes talks, films, art, theatre and comedy – both Bridget Christie and Josie Long have signed up – and is mostly free to the public. “We want to the replace shame and silence usually associated with this issue, with insight, understanding and community”, the website explains.

I went along on Friday night to hear Li and others discuss how to improve media coverage of sexual assault and abuse. Since joining the Church Times I’ve written regularly about abuse perpetrated within the Church, and with the Goddard Inquiry now underway, it is expected that many more survivors will come forward to tell their stories. What is the media’s role in enabling the telling? When do we get it wrong? How can we get it right?

Burrowes, who works closely with the Crown Prosecution Service and police, admitted that she went through “a long period of throwing newspapers across the room, because what I would read had nothing to do with my world”. What they contained was, in fact, making her world harder. The “lucky lad” narrative which can accompany stories of women having sex with underage boys, for example, is reflected in courts. “It was not just a bit of fun: that young man could be traumatised.”

The biggest of the rape myths that permeate the courts, she believes, is that sex offenders are “monsters”. An idea has taken hold that “we cannot possibly understand them, they are so far removed from us. So if the offender looks nothing like a monster we are perplexed – so we think it must be something the victim did.” A rapist treats another human being like an object, she argued. When the media turns the perpetrator into an object, it gets it wrong.

Her question – “Are we courageous enough to humanise the perpetrators?” – proved difficult for some in the audience.

“A conversation that gives the perpetrator a voice – I worry that that empowers further a person whose crime is about taking power from another human being,” said one woman working in the area of child sexual exploitation. “So many people who commit crimes end up in some way getting what they want: more attention and more power. Many victims and survivors would not have the biggest problem calling the perpetrator a monster.”

Burrowes believes that no alternative exists but to seek to go beyond this language.

“You can try to understand a person without having any compassion for the choices they have made,” she explained. “We need to understand why it happens so we can make it happen less. There is no other way around this. I want the media to start to flesh out that person who is currently just a monster. Not to say that what they have done is not monstrous. That does not mean we are giving them 30 minutes to justify why what they did was okay.”

Asked by a man in the audience – one of just five in a room of women – about whether the current culture deterred men at risk of acting on dangerous fantasies from seeking help, she suggested that the UK was “rubbish” at helping such men. “The ideal person to work with is someone who does not want to offend. Why must that person struggle on their own?”

But we heard too about the closure of clinics supporting survivors. Burrowes reported that some of the best clinicians she knew are spending about half their time fundraising, when “we should be giving them a fat cheque and a big thank you.” She suggested that journalists conduct a Freedom of Information inquiry to find out how much is spent on therapy for perpetrators and contrast it with how much is spent on victims.

Interestingly, she suggested that she often heard the most compassion for perpetrators from victims: “an understanding that this person is ultimately a broken but a human being”. She has found “a lot of sophistication from survivors because they know they have encountered the human at some point.”

Li is a case in point. Her reluctance to call her attacker a “monster” is borne of an awareness that rape is “a very prevalent crime” and that “divisive language is not productive”. Her attack by a stranger in a park is “rare” she suggested and many “less sensational” crimes are not reported at all. Her plea to the media is that it “try to capture the humanity of the people involved”.

Another area of discussion centred on the seeking of informed consent from survivors. It was described by Marcus Ryder, head of BBC Current Affairs Scotland, as “a very grey area”. Were producers seeking permission or simply informing their subject, fearing that “no” might be the answer to a genuine inquiry?

Alison Holt, the BBC’s social affairs correspondent, has reported on sexual abuse many times, including the terrible crimes that took place in Rochester, Oxford and Sheffield.

“I think you have to be really, really careful that the journey is one they want to take,” she said, of seeking consent from survivors. “That person needs to be ready, able, and really want to do it. We try to spell out the possible downside; to be really clear about the pluses and minuses.” It is the survivor’s right, she pointed out, to change their mind. Burrowes suggested that a similar approach should apply to seeking consent in sex: “It’s a journey . . . constantly checking in”.

After one audience member reported that women’s organisations were acting as “gatekeepers” to survivors, and are not always willing to provide access to those that might be willing to tell their stories, Burrowes defended their hesitation.

“I do not think it is a good choice for everybody,” she said. “It can be a good choice when you make it but a terrible choice two years later.”

Radhika Sanghani, who writes for the Daily Telegraph’s Wonder Woman online section, explained that the comments section is turned off when an individual tells a personal story, because it is now inevitable what sort of response will poison the page: “It is going to be misogyny. It will be horrible. It will be rape threats.”

But with the internet comes power, too. Li pointed out that survivors are cutting out the middle man altogether, and telling their stories directly. Over the next two days, at the end of a tunnel in Waterloo, light will be shone on a dark topic through art therapy, talks, comedy, and poetry. I thoroughly recommend you join the conversation.

Why journalists can’t afford to ignore religion

In Uncategorized on March 19, 2015 at 1:27 pm

“Why journalists can’t afford to ignore religion” was on the table last night, at the Groucho Club.

It’s been a “hobby horse” of Edward Stourton, the presenter of Radio 4’s Sunday programme for some years. Introducing the debate as Chair, he described how he had developed this conviction while covering the Second Intifada. A suicide bombing, he asserted, “only makes sense if there is a religious dimension to it”.

Except, as Karen Armstrong points out in her new book, that’s not true. Robert Pape of the University of Chicago has studied every single suicide bombing from 1980 to 2004 and found that it is “always a response to the invasion of the homeland by a militarily superior power”. Suicide bombing was first used by the Tamil Tigers. Of the Lebanese bombings of the 1980s, most were committed by secularists and socialists.

I think that Stourton is right that religion is ill-understood, and over-looked, by journalists, but his comment was the first of several throughout the debate which illustrated that we won’t overcome this through opinions, impressions, and anecdotes. The danger, given the level of religious illiteracy, is that statements which may sound credible, self-evident, or intuitive, are accepted as fact. Read the rest of this entry »

‘Why do you cringe?’ – challenges from the Christians of the Middle East

In Uncategorized on March 1, 2015 at 10:12 pm

Part of my job is to report on the lives of Christians abroad. I’ve interviewed a Pakistani husband battling to save his wife, sentenced to death for blasphemy. I’ve heard an Iranian mother explain to our own MPs how she lost access to her 2-year-old child after her conversion. It’s partly as a result of these encounters that I find any suggestion that Christians face persecution in Britain offensive.

Since I started work at the Church Times, three years ago, the message from one particular part of the world has been consistent. In the lands where the Christian faith has some of its deepest roots, where worshipping communities can be traced back to the first century AD, extinction is forecast.

In Iraq, where Christians numbered up to 1.4 million in 1987, just 400,000 remained in 2013. Since then, as Islamic State has gained territory, the exodus has continued. Mosul, a city which had up to 60,000 Christians ten years ago, is now empty of Christians.

Christians made up to 30 per cent of Syria’s population in the 1920s. Today they constitute just 8 per cent. Tens of thousands have fled the cities of Aleppo and Homs. In the latter the number has plummeted from 160,000 down to 1000.

Since the fall of President Mubarak in February 2011, 200,000 Christians have left Egypt, after a surge in attacks in which Christian women were abducted and raped. In the space of a few days in August 2013 dozens of churches were torched.

The situation is desperate.

This month I sat up in the press gallery as the Archbishop of Erbil, the Rt Revd Bashar Warda, begged for help.

“We are now facing the extinction of Christianity as a religion and as a culture from Mesopotamia,” he said. “It is difficult to have to plead or beg for the help of the Church, the EU, the United States, Canada, to act now in such a way that there is opportunity for a Christian nucleus to remain and thrive in Iraq.”

He was asking for prayers. And for humanitarian aid. But earlier that week he had made headlines by requesting explicitly military intervention, and specifically the deployment of Western ground troops.

“As a Catholic I find it hard to say, but I want military action, there is no other way now.”

My instinct is to add my voice to this call.

Both the Pope, and the Archbishop of Canterbury have invoked the doctrine of a Just War.

But at a conference on Christians in the Middle East in London yesterday, the diversity of opinion among those being discussed was made abundantly apparent.

Here are six points that I took away Read the rest of this entry »

A response to Stephen Fry

In Uncategorized on February 1, 2015 at 12:10 pm

Stephen Fry doesn’t believe in God. But he’s furious with him. I can sympathise.

His God is an “utter maniac” who, despite being “all seeing, all wise, all kind, all beneficent”, sits by while children die of bone cancer.

Judging by the reaction to his rant, this is the God that other people have in mind too. It’s a God I’ve had in mind, and railed at, and hated.

So I’m not dismissive of the rant, because this isn’t a God plucked from nowhere, a cartoonish fantasy that nobody with a faith has ever squared up to.

Fry knows this, because he starts his speech by describing it as “what’s known as theodicy” (Wikipedia: “the attempt to answer the question of why a good God permits the manifestation of evil”). People of faith have been engaged in this attempt for thousands of years: philosophers and theologians, and those with the best qualifications – people who have gone through the sorts of terrible things Fry has in mind when he describes God as “utterly monstrous”.

CS Lewis lost both his mother and his wife to cancer. If you really want to read some fantastic tirades against God I’d recommend A Grief Observed over Fry any day. Brutal.

Pete Greig’s God on Mute, written after his wife was diagnosed with a brain tumour, should also be a classic.

Nicky Gumbel, whose family died in the Holocaust, described Fry’s question as “the biggest moral objection to the Christian faith, and no one has really ever come up with a satisfactory answer.”

I appreciate that kind of honesty.

I watched my Mum die from cancer from when I was ten until I was 12, and there’s nothing worse than hearing attempts to explain it that, even as a child, are utterly unconvincing (and infuriating):


“He allowed it to happen so that good could come out of it”


“It means that you’ll be able to help other people who have gone through it”.


I don’t want this to turn into a Bible study, but having read the thing cover to cover (it took me two years and to be honest I skipped the bits about measuring things in cubits), I can confirm that Fry’s material has been doing the rounds for a while.

“Awake, O Lord! Why do you sleep?

Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever.

Why do you hide your face

and forget our misery and oppression?”

Psalm 44:23-24

I don’t have the answer to Fry’s question.

But I have rejected his God.

I can’t, and don’t, believe in a God who is “capricious, mean-minded, stupid”.

Neither do I believe in the sort of heaven presented in the film on death produced by the British Humanist Association, which he narrated – a place you hope to scrape into if you’ve done enough good things to merit a reward.

To be fair, Fry was responding to the sort of God given to him by the presenter: the bouncer at the “pearly gates”.

(Incidentally, it was quite funny when this presenter said: “And you think you’re going to get in?”

My personal impression of God post the two-year Bible read is that he has a soft spot for ranters.

I also imagine he found the Speckled Jim episode hilarious.)

So, no, I don’t spend my life cravenly thanking a God who sits on a cloud just watching while we suffer.

The God I believe in is loving, compassionate, present – sometimes through other people – and cries with those who suffer.

“Jesus wept”

The last person I heard say this was watching The Voice with me.

But it’s in the Bible and I love it.

I think we’re a bit embarrassed about talking about the actual experience of faith here in the UK. But surely it’s this that enables people to struggle with theodicy but believe in, love, and even trust in God anyway. It could be a feeling, a conversation, a dream, a sense during a prayer that he (or she) has heard, and cares.

Fry talks about a world of “pain and injustice” but in some of the countries that are arguably far less shielded from this than the UK, faith is thriving.

I’ll always remember interviewing a survivor of the Cambodian genocide who became a Christian after a dream in which he saw a church shining. And the woman who lost her husband in the Rwandan genocide.

“I clung on to faith for a good long time after that, and God provided such a stability through the trauma,” she told me. “But over the years it really challenged my faith, to the point where I was wondering: how could God let that happen, and is there really a God at all? I think in the long term, it has grounded me and strengthened me in my faith.”

So the one thing I really take issue with is Fry’s suggestion that: “The moment you banish him, your life becomes simpler, purer, cleaner, more worth living.”

It’s a bit like the atheist bus sign that read “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life”

Pretty patronising.

I don’t doubt that some people found it liberating.

But it discounts the people who take a huge amount of comfort and strength from their faith, precisely BECAUSE they actually have quite a lot to worry about.

I’ll end with the bit in CS Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew where the Boy asks the Lion for a cure for his mother, who is dying of cancer:

“Up till then he had been looking at the Lion’s great feet and the huge claws on them; now, in his despair, he looked up at its face. What he saw surprised him as much as anything in his whole life. For the tawny face was bent down near his own and (wonder of wonders) great shining tears stood in the Lion’s eyes. They were such big, bright tears compared with Digory’s own that for a moment he felt as if the Lion must really be sorrier about his Mother than he was himself.”

Some thoughts on intervention (after reading A Problem from Hell)

In Uncategorized on October 12, 2014 at 7:59 pm

After Justin Welby spoke in favour of airstrikes in Iraq in the House of Lords last month (“there is justification for the use of armed force on humanitarian grounds”) there were various tweets from Christians along the lines of “but Jesus said to love your enemies”.

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